“But…” Xu Ningyan spoke as if in deep contemplation, staring at the duo. It was hard to read his expression and that made both of them uneasy.
Sasha frowned. So there really was a catch! Even if there was, it was not like he could oppose the young man before him. He was resigned to whatever Xu Ningyan wished from them, as long as it did not touch his bottom line. If it did, even if it killed him, he would never agree.
“But…?” Marlowe swallowed his saliva as he asked.
“You guys have to let me wear some clothes first,” Xu Ningyan replied casually as if blind to the reaction of the duo.
Shi Yun then blocked their view on cue and helped his master with the robe.
“Right! Sorry!” Sasha blushed, and quickly turned. Marlowe, dumbfounded, remained as he did until Sasha kicked him.
Xu Ningyan spoke as he let Shi Yun put a space bracelet on his left wrist.
“You don’t have to wait on me. Go ahead and busy yourself,” he said without looking at Shi Yun. “Once you finish what you need to do here, go back to Nancheng.”
Shi Yun repeated in a voice so low it sounded like a whisper. Did their master want him to be around a certain young master?
Even though Xu Ningyan heard the question in his voice, he ignored it.
There was actually more Xu Ningyan wanted to know but he did not wish to speak about it in others’ presence.
“Understood. I will take my leave now.” Shi Yun nodded and left the room, never giving the two uninvited guests a second look. There was no need for him to be concerned with his master for he knew full well Xu Ningyan could look after himself fine. Besides, there were still his three other shadow guards around his master.
He first went round to check the arrays around the Poetry Garden’s business district, with a special token given to him by Xu Ningyan, he could basically do anything he wanted. Then left the town discreetly to find his other companions from their siege on Baishan.
Maybe… he would check on the situation in Nancheng while he was at it.
Xu Ningyan waved him away and looked down at the pure white brocade robe he was adorned in. Could anyone tell him why it’s all white? Who cared if it was made from the finest silk or top notch stitching? His eyelids twitched at the dim decorations on the robe’s sleeves and hems. He pushed his hair back, disgruntled but he quickly messed up his hair.
He did not like wearing white. It reminded him of something unpleasant. Even if it was easy for cultivators like them to keep it clean.
Another shadow guard approached him. Their sudden appearance surprised the duo, they did not sense their presence at all.
They looked at each other and the same thing ran through their minds.
Are the magic practitioners here ghosts?!
“Young Master, may I?” The person spoke in a tone so light one might as well hear nothing.
“Don’t bother,” he said, reaching his hand out to the shadow guard. The shadow guard placed a hair crown on his palm. With it, he set up his long, black hair wordlessly. Though he was not wearing any fancy decorations, only a waist pendant that showed his family’s name, he still stood out with his intimidating aura.
“That’s one fancy ornament,” Marlowe commented, unable to hold his curiosity in, turning to look at Xu Ningyan and the new arrival. He caught himself staring at the haircrown.
“Don’t you have some modesty?” He kicked Marlowe from the side. Why the hell was he still peeking?
“It’s fine! He’s dressed! But our clothes sure are strange compared to their robes.” He looked down at his attire and then at Sasha’s. He pondered for a bit, and then leaned towards his companion which in turn pushed him away. He feigned hurt, ignoring the annoyance in his reluctant companion’s face. “What do you think?”
“About what? About how you messed up your spell despite being a master? Or about this Young Master? His underlings? No comment about the first one as thinking about it makes me angry. The Young Master seems amicable but hard to see through. His underlings just follow his orders, don’t they?” There was more to what he said but he did not trust Marlowe enough to share his thoughts.
So, he decided to answer perfunctorily.
“The Young Master… he reeks of danger.” Marlowe laughed, his eyes shone with curiosity and deep interest.
In his life as a young master he had seen all sorts of people. People who get close to you with hidden motives and those after your lives. And this young master, in his book, was someone everyone wanted a piece of but stayed away in fear of their lives.
He looked like a sheep but yet at the same time a really ferocious one. Like he was a wolf in a sheepskin, but not entirely not a sheep. Marlowe shook his thoughts away, the more he dwelled upon it the more sense it did not make.
Sasha frowned. Was this man actually smarter than he looks? But he did not appreciate the look in Marlowe’s eyes. He had seen many of those alike that got themselves killed coveting things that did not belong to them.
Sasha’s eyes followed after Xu Ningyan.
Associating with him gave Sasha a feeling of searching for the light in the dark. And that light they find, would it be a loss for them or a gain? It was hard to tell at the moment. But, he needed it. Xu Ningyan might be different and better than he ever would be, and there might be darker waters that he could not even begin to comprehend just being near Xu Ningyan, but the gains should outweigh the losses.
If he had that foresight, he would not have lost his brethren to them in the first place.
Xu Ningyan turned and moved to the door. “We’re leaving.” His shadow guard was long gone. Both of them did not have time to think about how that follower of Xu Ningyan disappeared without them realising as they ran to catch up with him. As they left the building, they began to see more and more fox-looking employees. And more than that was a huge crowd of wealthy looking customers.
It felt like the entire district was filled with cunning employees trying to lure people, or clients, into doing business with them. The atmosphere was weird but what weirder was that the customers had not noticed a single thing.
Marlowe could not put a name to it. Just being present here felt uncomfortable; those customers hovered in with wide smiles on their faces.
He looked at the commercial smiles of the employees and shuddered, cold sweat soaked his back. He clutched at his wallet unconsciously and looked at Xu Ningyan who was in front of him.
Marlowe did not think that he would be able to leave safely with his money intact if it were not for the fact that the employees seemed to be steering clear of them.
Marlowe blurted out, “Little master, these employees of yours…? Are they like fox spirits or something? Are you like a fox too?” Marlowe rubbed his eyes thinking he saw something he did not need to.
Xu Ningyan suddenly stopped. It felt like the flow of time in the entire place stopped. Marlowe could not help but notice that the smiles on those employees around them froze, seeming to have a hard time breathing and nervous.
And yet, at the same time, a group of young masters noticed them. They did not move from their spot but nobody could ignore the glint in their eyes as they noticed Xu Ningyan. It was like they could not wait to rush over if it were not for the dangerous air around Young Master Xu.
Marlowe spoke cautiously, looking around. “Is something wrong? Did I say something wrong?”
“Oh no, no. On the contrary, those are, undeniably, those foolish fox spirits that everyone talks about,” Xu Ningyan sneered.
There was a light chuckle but there was no emotion on the young master’s face. Why would a bastard child like him bore any similarities to them?
Young Master Xu grew up fighting with foxes and was even bullied by them, until he grew up and all of them regretted ever messing with him. Even those who had not heard of him feared him.
Rumours of him within the family were not the slightest pleasant but they served their purpose. It would be good if fear propped up their working efficacy but judging by the performance of those who came to pick him up at Baishan, he had some doubts about the younger generations.
Perhaps, he should leave one of Shi Yun’s team here to play with them. While he did not really care about them, the thought that one of his many assets would be so vulnerable was not pleasant.
While things seemed peaceful for now, who knew if things would change soon? After all, when and where the wind would change its course were things mortals would never know.
He had a strange obsession with being strong, something his second brother pointed out often. It was not enough that he himself was already the strongest among his generation of cultivators, everything, everyone around him, that was considered allies to him, should be strong as well.
“It’s not as if you at your prime were beaten down and fell from grace and became nothing. You lived a well and pampered life, besides the past you’ve forgotten, you have never suffered any grievances. What is wrong with you? I don’t think whatever happened in the valley would trigger you that much.”
“It wouldn’t. Those trash are nothing in my eyes. Is that the best of the people under you could do?” Xu Ningyan smiled, answering in a mocking tone.
Xu Ningze, his second brother, would often ask him the same question. And each time, he would deflect it. Why would there be a need for a reason for becoming strong? Was it not good that he was helping everyone else as well? Not giving their enemies a chance to find their weak point.
The weak have no place in this world. All they will get in return is abuse and be bullied by the strong. That was the way of life. To fend against the bully, one must be strong. One must not depend on others for protection. What if one day they were alone? Would they not die a miserable death without anyone knowing? With grievances no one else could answer for them?
Actually, he did realise he could be rather strange sometimes. But, he did not think it was wrong. Neither did he think it was right. For in truth, he did not really care about anything, but in the deepest darkest of his soul, there seemed to be something lurking. An explainable rage.
Perhaps, it had something to do with the memories he had lost. Perhaps, he was like everyone said—a monster.
Completely oblivious to the air around Xu Ningyan, Marlowe gasped in awe. “That’s why they all look so pretty. Even though compared to little master here, they are still lacking but beautiful things are still beautiful, no matter how one looks at it.”
Sasha felt annoyed. “Have you said enough? Can you shut up now?” Why did this idiot have so much bullshit to talk about?
“Why are you so grouchy again?” Marlowe asked with concern but his concern felt so much like sarcasm that Sasha felt like if he spoke one more word he would just punch him into a pulp.
Sasha ignored him and looked at Xu Ningyan. “Are those young men your acquaintances? They kept looking over.”
Xu Ningyan shrugged, not giving that group of young masters a look as he walked in unhurried steps out of the Poetry Garden’s district. “Beats me.” He was completely unbothered.
The two men behind Xu Ningyan followed him, not forgetting to take in the surroundings.
Marlowe’s interests piqued and could not help but ask again, “Those buildings we passed by all had the same logo as the one we left. Are these all yours, little master?”
Xu Ningyan, who seemed to be in the mood to indulge the foreigner’s questions, opened his mouth to speak. “You give me too much credit. Like you said, I’m just a little master, how could I possibly be able to run such a huge business?” He chuckled.
It was no secret that Poetry Garden was an influential organisation. Everyone could not help but want to pull it to their side, but would the one on top ever bow to anyone? No. Gentleman Xu was a man of gray morality and did not care the slightest who he would offend with his rein-free actions.
The branch in Ming Jing was not always this grandiose. Who would dare to allow such a man to possess any sort of influence in their country? But they could not help it. With the Myosotis Tower’s growing presence in Listeria, and one way or another they had a footing in Ming Jing, a gift of friendship by the previous Kings.
Who would dare to question their presence and be slammed with the sin of going against the King? All they could do is rant about it between themselves. But as rumours of the Tower racked up, they had no choice to band together and force the old King to give similar treatment to the only other organisation that could be considered equal to the Tower—the Poetry Garden of Xu Huo Valley—the medicine valley of Listeria.
The other branches of Poetry Garden in other countries were not even half as grand as the one in South Gate City. They only exist to suppress the Tower. Even half of the employees were filled with people from the court.
How did anyone manage to make the unrelenting Gentleman Xu agree to such an unprofitable business? Nobody knows. They all believed their own versions of the stories—the politicians believed that he was taken by their sincerity or he had even the slightest love for Listeria to prevent foreigners from entrenching on their lands.
But anyone who had met him or any of his three offspring—one thing they can be ascertained of, they could not be bothered with such nonsense.
No matter how low profile they wanted to be, with a young master in front who possessed an aura of not to be trifled with and two giants behind him, they could not help but gather looks from everyone around them.
As they walked without pause through a street filled with street food stalls en route to the Tower's branch, Xu Ningyan suddenly stopped and turned, slowly walking towards a candy stall.
A wrinkly old man with smiles all over and sweat dripping from his forehead down his chin looked up at the incoming customer. “This young master, care for a candy?”
Marlowe smiled teasingly. “I didn’t think you were into these things.”
Sasha kept silent, his eyes taking in the surroundings. There should be a spell or something for them to understand each other but he seemed to be oblivious that such things exist. Thoughts of his brethrens came to mind again and he frowned.
Xu Ningyan sneered and looked at the old man, “Sorry to disappoint you then. Old fox, is the Tower Lord in?”
The old man upon hearing that nickname stiffened slightly. There was only one who would disregard the fox race and that was the Third Young Master. With a slightly embarrassed smile, he spoke. “Third Young Master, I hadn’t seen you in forever. So, the rumours that you were—my apologies, the Tower Lord has left the city this morning. Though, an employee of the Tower did leave a message with this old man, saying if someone were to seek him to give them this message: he would be waiting in Si Xiang House. This old man didn’t understand then but…”
There was more he wanted to say but seeing the cold look in his master’s face, he stopped himself and shifted the topic back. He really wanted to know if their little monster of a master had really taken interest in a certain young man.
He lifted a stick of candy and passed it to the master. “He must have been anticipating your visit.” There was a smile on his face as Xu Ningyan took the candy and placed some coins in his old palm.
Marlowe looked at them and then at the candy. Both Sasha and Marlowe could not understand a single word so they could only turn their attention to the candy. Xu Ningyan pushed the candy to Marlowe and walked off.
The old man wiped the sweat off his cheeks and resumed shouting for customers. Their only duty was to do their jobs, not wonder what was in the thoughts of their masters. But now that the Third Young Master has made an appearance, those young masters of the branch family…
Ming Jing is going to get noisier in the passing days, it barely even settled down from the coup despite appearing to be calm. Wherever the Third Young Master went, troubles seem to follow. Or perhaps, trouble had already been brewing just that this old man had not the eyes to see it.
He looked into the crowd, but the young master was no longer in sight. The old man shook his head, serving his customers with smiles.
Xu Ningyan told them about the whereabouts of the Tower Lord and how they would be leaving for the capital.
Marlowe clamoured excitedly. “Wow, you randomly grabbed at an old man and it turned out to be your underlings? That’s not something you see everywhere. Are these the infamous spies?!”
Sasha side-eyed him. “You should not say that out loud.”
Xu Ningyan chuckled. “Yes, there are ears everywhere. You don’t want to be captured and slammed with offenses before even finding a clue to what happened to those you were looking for, right?”
Marlowe covered his mouth, eyes darting around. There was still a huge crowd around them as they approached the gate that would lead to Nancheng. He could swear he found several inconspicuous eyes observing them.
He nudged Sasha, “I think we stand out too much.”
Sasha rolled his eyes, “Isn’t it too late to notice that?”
Marlowe sulked, “Is it my fault that the place and people are too eye-catching?!!!!”
Sasha ignored his complaint and turned to Xu Ningyan. “What sort of person is this supposedly Tower Lord?”
Xu Ningyan, “No one has met him before.”
Xu Ningyan, “Though judging from all the business transactions Poetry Garden has had with the Tower, I would assume he is an easygoing person. Or at the very least, I believe that was his intention. Who knows how he really is, though I am not worried.”
Sasha, “How long have you guys been working together?”
Xu Ningyan gave a rough guess. “More than thirty years, perhaps?”
Sasha and Marlowe, “????”
Sasha, “And he never showed himself before… you guys can trust someone like that?”
Marlowe, “Talk about mysterious.”
Xu Ningyan chuckled. “Let’s just say our debtor belongs to the Tower so regardless of whether or not the Tower Lord is a trustworthy individual is not that important to us.”
Marlowe wanted to pry further but Sasha stopped him. This was none of their business. It would be rude to ask more than they should.
Marlowe sighed and reeled himself in.
At the gate, there were multiple carts queuing to leave the city. The trio joined the queue, asking one of the cart owners for a ride.
The guards here were not as strict as the one at Nancheng. As long as one was not carrying anything dangerous, they would let them go with a pass that could be used at Nancheng’s gate. They have a special pass for those who were carrying supplies for the businesses in Nancheng.
Visitors’ checking were pretty lax too as before they entered South Gate City, their identities had already been confirmed.